After yet another week of political groundhog days, with the battle over who has ultimate control over powers repatriated from Brussels – such as agriculture – spilling over into the wider media, it became very clear that, rather than moving towards a resolution, the attitudes of the UK and Scottish Governments are simply becoming more entrenched.
And, with another week of silence from Defra on its plans for a post-Brexit agricultural strategy, any hope that there might be a workable plan on the drawing board has surely now been all but extinguished.
Even Defra’s attempt at some cheer – George Eustice’s announcement of a possible £15 million boost to the sheep sector through the re-opening of the sales to Kuwait – only served to emphasise the precarious nature of the existing £330m market with Europe which has been put in jeopardy by Brexit (to say nothing of the controversy such an increase in Halal slaughter might cause).
So, good news has been pretty thin on the ground over the past seven days.
But there was one small glimmer of light. It didn’t take the form of any ground-breaking change but was perhaps a harbinger of a change in the underlying attitude between two other groups which have traditionally been at loggerheads.
Now if the man or woman on the Clapham omnibus – or the Edinburgh tram or even Glasgow subway – was asked to imagine a typical farmhouse, they would be likely to conjure up a comfy, commodious, cosy kitchen, with a big old stove like an Aga or a Rayburn, surrounded by a selection of cats, dogs, wellies and jackets.
This romantic notion might even extend to bright bedrooms filled with birdsong – but beyond this the picture might become a bit more hazy.
But “damp, draughty, dingy and difficult to heat” might be the slightly more prosaic opinion held by many tenant farmers – and their wives and families – who live in them the year round.
This more pessimistic view was backed up by the findings of one of the Scottish Parliament’s committees – which looked into some of the problems suffered by tenant farmers a year or so back. Indeed some of the committee members were genuinely shocked when they discovered conditions which simply wouldn’t be allowed in other sectors of the rented housing market – and they promised to come back to the issue.
For, currently in Scotland, housing under an agricultural lease is exempt from many of the rules and regulations which operate throughout the residential sector under the Housing Acts.
Landlords have therefore been under no obligation to bring housing up to what most, in this day and age, might consider acceptable standards – and they have traditionally been reluctant to invest in farmhouses.
This has meant that improvements to these quarters have usually been carried out by tenants themselves. And, with the tenancy often passing through the hands of several generations, some of these “improvements” will probably date back as far as to include the provision of basic plumbing facilities such as indoor toilets, installing electricity and, in some cases, even the sybaritic indulgence of central heating.
But, from the tenant’s point of view, the incentive to lavish a lot of cash on a house which someone else owns – with no likelihood of recompense – has often been fairly limited.
And so, with both sides unwilling to invest in improvements in these homes, many farmhouses would be considered a little basic if they popped up in our town or cities.
However, the Scottish Landowners Federation announced last week that they would be willing to recognise at least some of these enhancements under the wider amnesty on tenants’ improvements.
And this is a small but important step towards ensuring that tenants – many of whom are obliged to live on the farm under the terms of their lease – will have their efforts recognised alongside those they have carried out in their fields and sheds.
A small step, perhaps – but enough to show that even where there have been apparently irreconcilable differences in the past, there might still be hope for mankind.